Working Longer During the Pandemic
Contrary to some expectations, Americans are logging three extra hours of work a day.
An interesting report from Bloomberg News that may come as a surprise to some bosses but not too many workers: “Three Hours Longer, the Pandemic Workday Has Obliterated Work-Life Balance.”
One must, of course, issue the caveats that those of us working from home during the crisis are lucky 1) to still have a job when so many have lost theirs and 2) to be able to socially distance rather than risk our lives and those of our families with jobs that require meeting the public.
That said, the findings are interesting:
Six weeks into a nationwide work-from-home experiment with no end in sight, whatever boundaries remained between work and life have almost entirely disappeared.
With many living a few steps from their offices, America’s always-on work culture has reached new heights. The 9-to-5 workday, or any semblance of it, seems like a relic of a bygone era. Long gone are the regretful formalities for calling or emailing at inappropriate times. Burnt-out employees feel like they have even less free time than when they wasted hours commuting.
Some predicted the great work-from-home migration of the pandemic would usher-in a new age of flexible work arrangements. As of 2017 only 3% of full-time workers in the U.S. said they “primarily” worked out of a home office in a Census Bureau survey. Then millions sheltered at home for what was originally thought to be a temporary hiatus. Many mapped out plans to fill time they would’ve spent commuting to take up new hobbies, like learning a foreign language, baking or getting into the best shape of their lives. It looked like the beginnings of a telecommuting revolution.
A month and a half later, people are overworked, stressed, and eager to get back to the office. In the U.S., homebound employees are logging three hours more per day on the job than before city and state-wide lockdowns, according to data from NordVPN, which tracks when users connect and disconnect from its service. Out of all countries that NordVPN tracks, U.S. workers had tacked on the most hours. In France, Spain, and the U.K. the day has stretched an additional two hours, NordVPN’s data found. Italy saw no change at all.
The contours of the workday have changed, too. Without commutes, wake-up times have shifted later, NordVPN found, but peak email time has crept up an hour to 9 a.m., according to data from email client Superhuman. Employees are also logging back in late at night. Surfshark, another VPN provider, has seen spikes in usage from midnight to 3 a.m. that were not present before the COVID-19 outbreak.
Huda Idrees, the chief executive officer of Dot Health, a Toronto-based technology startup, confirms her 15 employees are working, on average, 12-hour days, up from 9 hours pre-pandemic. “We’re at our computers very early because there’s no commute time,” she said. “And because no one is going out in the evenings, we’re also always there.”
One big problem is there’s no escape. With nothing much to do and nowhere to go, people feel like they have no legitimate excuse for being unavailable. One JPMorgan employee interrupted his morning shower to join an impromptu meeting after seeing a message from a colleague on his Apple Watch. By the time he dried off and logged back on, he was five minutes late.
Then there’s the fact that people have turned their living spaces into makeshift offices, making it nearly impossible to disconnect. Having an extra room helps, but not much, said John Foster, who has been home in Tuscumbia, Alabama, since mid-March doing financial compliance for a manufacturing company. His workspace is right next to the living room. “You walk by 20 times a day” he said. “Every time you pass there, you’re not escaping work.”
At this point, he even misses his commute. “Usually you have that downtime to drive home or to kind of get ramped up for the day,” he said.
Others say they feel pressure from bosses to prove they’re working, especially as the economy takes a hit and the prospect of layoffs looms. At Constellation Software Inc. in Toronto, more than 100 employees got an email from a superior that said: “Don’t get distracted because you are on your own. It is easy to get into bad habits, the lure of the internet, the endless box sets. Just think, would I do this in the office? If it’s a no, don’t do it,” read the email reviewed by Bloomberg. “You know we will be watching closely,” the same manager wrote in an earlier message.
There’s more, but you get the gist.
I’ve worked from home quite a lot since leaving the contracting world for think tankery and academia fourteen years ago. Normally, I do indeed find it more productive because there are fewer interruptions and I gain back 90 minutes I would be commuting.
But, of course, sheltering-in-place with the entire family is a different experience entirely. There are more interruptions and nowhere to escape. And my wife is, for a variety of reasons, taking on the lion’s share of the burden of managing the kids’ school-from-home needs or it would be much, much worse.
While the occasional break from the commute on a work-from-home day is nice, I do rather miss it. That’s time I used to listen to podcasts and the like and it’s harder to do that from home.
I also customarily ran as many errands as I could on the way home from work. I’m not running nearly as many under the current strictures, of course, but those few take up much more time now since I’m not already out and about.
Having had a home office for 30-odd years at this point, its very existence doesn’t pull me in. In the previous house, it was on the main floor just off from the living room and dining room. Here, it’s off the upstairs master bedroom and thus easier to escape.
To the extent I’m working more hours—and I definitely am—it’s mostly self-imposed. More than anyplace I’ve worked in the Internet era, the culture at the College is such that almost no after-hours or weekend email traffic gets sent. And there haven’t been any obnoxious “you’d better not be screwing off” emails.
But the nature of the job is that there’s always more that I should be doing. While I tend to start a bit later—right before 9, rather than beginning the commute at 7:30—there’s not much in the way of chatting with colleagues or students, going out to lunch, and the like. And I’m working later than normal, too.
One suspects we’ll adjust over time and figure out how to better manage expectations, of both ourselves and others. This is likely to be the “new normal” for quite some time until we find a vaccine or treatment for the virus.
I disagree, however, with this:
“When you’re virtual you’re less distracted—nobody’s disappearing for coffee for a while or going and disappearing to socialize,” Dave Donovan, who leads the Americas global financial-services practice for Publicis Sapient, said. “Clients are more reachable too.” Given the early results, Donovan thinks remote work is here to stay. “Once the genie’s out of the bottle it’s not going to go back.”
People are social animals. Most will want—demand, even—to go back to working in offices.